Play, Repeat, Repeat Player One

The latest ‘Black Mirror’ puts the ‘Us’ in Möbius

What the hell is this “Bandersnatch” thing, really?

Is it an interactive Netflix movie? An experimental new season of Black Mirror told as one branching story? Or is it Netflix’s first high-profile video game, a test case for how we might be watching TV in the near future?

For a lot of Netflix viewers, particularly ones on devices that don’t play well with the story’s choose-your-own-adventure gameplay (Apple TV and Chromecast, as of this writing), Bandersnatch is gonna be a snoozy frustration. What is this thing that makes you pick up your remote and make choices for Pete’s sake when all you want to do is watch something after “Bird Box”?  How dare it make you re-watch scenes over and over again while in a post-Christmas stupor! And with British accents, no less!

Bandersnatch seems like a project positioned right toward fans of Black Mirror. It checks a lot of the boxes from the four previous seasons of the show: ultra-bleak premise? Check. Spot-on portrayals of technology interfaces and jargon of the period? Oh my, yes. Affecting music choices? Hope you like Eurythmics! Blunt trauma inflicted on the head of an overbearing parent? It’s got that, too!

It’s the 80s!

But because this story branches off like an old-school adventure game, it’s entirely possible that you can watch 90 minutes worth of “Bandersnatch” to get to one of its full endings  (as opposed to various dead ends you could hit along the way) and miss some of the best bits. It faces the same challenge adventure and role-playing game developers have had to deal with since video games started: how much choice and freedom do you give a player before the story you’re trying to tell starts to suffer?

Bandersnatch has a thin story, even by Black Mirror standards. In early-1980s England, a teen still traumatized by the accidental death of his mother wants to develop a computer game based on a novel called Bandersnatch. The novel itself has branching paths and a grisly backstory; its author became obsessed with alternate realities and killed his wife. In Black Mirror style, the story goes meta with the computer programmer Stefan falling into the same psychological rabbit hole and questioning whether outside forces are controlling his actions. They are, of course: it’s you with your remote control, choosing from sets of options along the way such as this or that breakfast cereal, whether to take drugs, and if the main character should commit murder.

The movie, or game, or whatever, doesn’t always play fair. Some of the options you’re asked to choose from don’t deliver on that option. Sometimes there’s only one option. Sometimes it’s a choice between “Yes” and “FUCK YEAH!” When you feel like the basic ground rules are a cheat, it’s frustrating. Then again, nobody said Black Mirror would ever be fair or play by its own rules.

What saves Bandersnatch from being a bore is that writer/creator Charlie Brooker still knows how to bend reality just so, balancing near-future dread with wit. There are loads of Easter eggs referencing past episodes, from titles of video games that reference episode titles to a cheeky news crawl with updates on characters from the Mirror-verse. But instead of feeling cheesy, the nods seem like world building. And the parallel-universes mumbo jumbo in this one feels of a piece with Booker’s obsessions with how the tech around us fuels not only our lifestyles but our interpretation of reality and how we perceive time and space.

A few of the roads you can take in “Bandersnatch” are quite fun and silly, such as the way Netflix itself works its way into the story, or a path that introduces more action. Because it’s “Black Mirror,” though, all the endings are tragic and dark in some way. There’s no winning this thing.

If this is to be the most divisive episode of Black Mirror yet, that’s to Brooker’s credit. It’s a big swing at bat, something new and different and certainly not perfect and probably not up to the terrifyingly giddy standards of the best of the series’ episodes. But there’s surely more regular episodes of the show coming, so don’t even worry about it. Bandersnatch is worth running through a few extra times, if only to play around the edges of what this tech can do right now.

Wrong choice, mate!

Omar Gallaga

Omar L. Gallaga is a technology culture writer, formerly of the Austin American-Statesman, but he's not interested in fixing your printer. He's written for Rolling Stone, CNN, The Wall Street Journal, Television Without Pity, Previously.tv and NPR, where he was a blogger and on-air tech correspondent for "All Things Considered." He's a founding member of Austin's Latino Comedy Project, which recently concluded a two-year run of its original sketch-comedy show, "Gentrifucked."

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